Feb. 6, 2007 — -- Although Damascus is in many ways a modern city, ancient hatreds are flaring up within it, bleeding across borders from Iran to Israel to Lebanon.
Some say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is to blame for the recent unrest in the region.
It's a charge that has been passed down to Assad from his father, Hafez al-Assad, the former president of Syria who Richard Nixon once said had a touch of genius playing three-D chess to keep Syria secure in the Middle East -- tilting a little to America's enemies, then tilting a little back.
Now, Assad, 41, is at the center of a crisis that would challenge even his father.
In a few months, a U.N. tribunal is expected to accuse Syria, possibly even Assad's brother-in-law, and the chief of military intelligence of political assassination in Lebanon.
While Americans insist Assad pull away from a meddling and menacing Iran, Assad says Syria and Iran have been allies since his dad's presidency -- for 25 years.
In an exclusive interview, Assad told ABC's Diane Sawyer that Syria needed Iran and that there was no evidence that Syria had a hand in the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister. He also spoke about human rights issues that had been brought against Syria.
Assad: So should I tell them, "You have to go away from me. I don't need your support," when the rest of the world is trying to isolate Syria? Of course not. We need the support of Iran. We need the support of every other country.
Sawyer: The United States is reportedly, next week, this week going to announce the documentation it has of Iranian military support for insurgents in Iraq. Do you believe this is happening?
Assad: We cannot say concretely what's happening there. But before the war in Iraq … they say there's WMD in Iraq. We didn't find any weapons of mass destruction. They said there's a link between Saddam and al Qaeda. It hasn't been proven yet. So why should we believe them?
Sawyer: A quick question about Lebanon. As you know the United Nations has a tribunal and they are investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and they have said they have forensic, they have financial, they have witness evidence that it leads to Syria.
Sawyer: If indeed, they have evidence and they present it, would you turn over to them, any Syrian official who is implicated?
Assad: I said that publicly, if anyone that could have been involved in such a crime is a traitor. So before turning him over, he will be tried under our laws and our constitution.
Sawyer: Before turning him over?
Assad: Of course in our tribunal, yes, because it's a matter of sovereignty.
Sawyer: Because you know the implication is they have evidence about your brother-in-law?
Assad: If they have any evidence, any concrete evidence, they have to show it off. We haven't had any such evidence. We only have accusations. No evidence at all.
Sawyer: And the report that PM Hariri came here, met with you, and I think the quote they gave, that the tribunal gave -- "You said that you would break Lebanon over his head" -- and he left so angry that he had to [take] blood pressure medication.
Assad: [I have] heard this story many times, but this is just a political accusation. We only heard these stories after the assassination. Why didn't we hear these stories before the assassination? [These are] only false pretenses.
Sawyer: You have said to Israel, "Call my bluff." Call my bluff. … What did you mean? What do they not know about what you're prepared to do?
Assad: The basics is the peace process, which depends on a land for peace. Are they willing to give back our land and withdraw completely? I asked for negotiations many times, especially the last few years and their Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert said we are not going to talk to Syria.
Sawyer: Of course the reason they say is Hamas. And that not only does the leader of Hamas live here, has a base here, but gets financial support and political support from you. When you hear that buses of children or marketplaces or restaurants have been bombed by members of Hamas … do you denounce it? Is it terrorism?
Assad: First of all, we are against violence in general. We don't believe in violence. But it's not enough to like or not or to dislike. The most important thing is to deal with the events. If we don't like it, it won't stop it. You have people who kill Israelis, but you have people that kill civilians, Palestinian civilians every day in the Palestinian territory.
Sawyer: But the Israelis say you can stop it and you can withdraw financial support and you can withdraw political support.
Assad: First of all, they don't have any financial support. Their base and their grass roots are in Palestine, they are not in Syria. There are only few, less than 10, in Syria.
Sawyer: Is there something new in the peace process?
Assad: No, nothing new, because as I said earlier this administration doesn't have the will, and it's really difficult to move on the peace track without the United States.
Sawyer: And chance Hamas will volunteer recognition of Israel's right to exist?
Assad: It's a matter of dialogue. If you want them to do so, to be involved in peace, you better talk to them. Convince them.
Sawyer: As I came here, human rights groups sent me the names of what they say are political prisoners and journalistic prisoners. People who [are] imprisoned and treated horribly just for writing, writing criticism of the government.
Assad: This is not true. We don't have such political prisoners. We have two kinds of prisoners. Either involved in terrorist attacks or breaking the law of Syria.
Sawyer: To the Americans that read the Human Rights Watch and that read the human rights reports.
Assad: Yeah, we don't say that we are perfect and whenever I talk about this issue I always say we are still at the very beginning. We still have a long way to go. Actually the democratic development has suffered from the serious setback recently especially after the war on Iraq. It's not only what you want to do. It's not only a matter of laws. You need the development of the society and you need the political atmosphere and you need the security.
Sawyer: But you were educated in England and you saw. … Press freedom, political freedom. Why not have complete democracy here? Why not have Western-style democracy in Syria?
Assad: Well, I was educated in Syria. I went to London when I was 27 years old. But again, the democracy is a tool to a better life, but it is a part of the political development. And the political development should be part of the society development. It needs time. You cannot develop society suddenly just like this.
The democracy in your country and in Europe is a result of long history. It didn't happen suddenly. So you can't talk about abrupt changes in our region. It's a matter of time, and it should go this way, but not according to Western standards -- unless we change our customs and habits. So it's going to be democracy, but according to our standards.